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May 10, 2015

Treading water

I feel like I’m stuck in a rut... on hold... treading water...

This past Saturday I made reservations to fly back to the Pacific Northwest for a couple weeks in August. The primary focus will be a four-day off-road motorcycle course. I may also take an advanced street skills class, where I’m pretty sure drifting is off the table. There is also an extended tour/course I’m looking at, though it might be a bit over my head… plus I sold all my camping gear in The Great Divesting. Since bike rental for the four-day will come in just under $500 and another $150+ for the street class, I’ll buy a KLR650
as soon as I can after I hit town. The one pictured was my first motorcycle and I’ve long wished I’d kept it. I’ll use it for the class(es) and then I’ll keep it in my friend Liz’s warehouse until my next adventure—or the one after that.

It’s nice here in Việt Nam, and I’m taking, on-average, two road trips each month to Saigon or Mui Ne or Nha Trang or Cam Ranh (all three desert-like yet on the ocean and none is worth a re-visit). Since I’ve already seen most of the country from the seat of a motorcycle, I’m less than excited about retracing my routes; plus it’s hot-as-fcuk in Saigon and all up the coast from April through November and just HOT December through March. Đà Lạt is an oasis, but it’s also hard to find a lot of things. Like good chocolate... or quality engine oil...

The first thing I did when I got home after leaving the Suzuki at the shop was check the oil on the cruiser… it barely registered on the dipstick. There IS an oil light and it is NOT on. Assuming the bulb is good (I checked and it is), I should be able to ride the bike, right?

NOT chancing it!

I went on-line and found that SH oil is recommended for the cruiser, so I headed out to look for SH oil. I walked to a LOT of moto repair shops within 2 km (‘cause both bikes are out of commission and I can use the exercise) and tried to buy SH oil. "No have." Most of them and the Suzuki shop (5 km) have SG, but that’s NOT SH and I am NOT chancing it, even if it means walking or taking taxis for another couple days until the Suzuki is fixed. The Suzuki shop found some SJ oil for me, though I had yet to take the time to learn what the difference is between the SG, SH, and SJ.

Thursday I called Hau at Hein Motors in Saigon, the shop where I bought the bike. He has what he says is V-Twin-specific oil, so I asked him to send me a case via bus (shipping something under 32 kilos from Saigon to Dà Lạt costs US$5). Hau promised I’d have it Friday. On Saturday I called him again and he said, “100%, you will have it tomorrow!” Sunday morning he called to tell me that none of the bus or transport companies will take the oil because "it’s flammable like gasoline." Really??? Shit! Who told you that? Fortunately, a friend and neighbor is in Saigon seeing new friends and he’s agreed to bring the oil back with him Monday night.

As I am writing this I got a message from a friend in Mui Ne. He told me that last week he received two liters of oil that Hau shipped to him. WTF??? I'll see Hau later this week and find out WTF...

A professional driver (race cars) I used to know told me many times, “Slow is fast…” Today I finally slowed down enough to look into the difference in the S_ classifications. SHIT! The SJ would’ve been fine.

The good stuff is very expensive here—US$10-20 per liter is the price marked on the bottle before they see my white face. The SJ cost $18 per liter, so I'm thinking there must be liquid gold in there!!! The huge majority of the market is for motorbikes 100-125cc and I doubt many people know or care what crap they put in as long as the bike runs. In fact, I doubt many people change the oil until the light goes on and even the “good” shops will only change the filter when you tell them to. I had a few K&N filters for each bike in the boxes received last month, and the guy who’s doing the work here was impressed when I dropped one off. He’d heard of K&N, but never seen one before.

Back to my thoughts of moving on... As I said before, although I like it here, I feel like I’m stagnant, like I'm treading water. There are a lot of subtleties to the culture that I am just learning and with which I am uncomfortable. Let's call them 'my interpretations of the culture based on my experiences.’

The biggest and most significant example to me is the language. In the 24 other countries I’ve visited since the mid-1980's, the languages range from at least four flavors of English to numerous varieties of Spanish to Tagalog to French to Dutch to Japanese to Khmer to Korean to Laotian to… In EVERY SINGLE COUNTRY, and almost every instance of communicating with someone who did not speak any English, the people I encountered were flattered, and/or impressed, and sometimes even amused when I tried to communicate with them in their native tongue. Most would do everything they could to understand and communicate back to you. In Việt Nam, not so much.

Hold both hands up at about ear-level, palms facing out, with your upper arms at about 45 degrees to your body and your forearms vertical. Go ahead, no one's watching... Now rotate your wrists rapidly back-and-forth for about one second… one-thousand-one. You just gave the Vietnamese signal for, “I have no fcuking idea what you are saying” or "No way!" The same wrist rotations with forearms parallel to the ground means “We don’t have what you’re asking for" or an emphatic “No” in virtually any situation.

When I attempt to communicate in Vietnamese with a native speaker not previously known to me, 95+% of the native speakers will give me the first gesture, which I have taken to calling the “WTF”. The other ~5% will correct my pronunciation and, most likely, smile at my attempt. All of them give me a pitiful look as if I am a simple-minded dolt. After five months of experiencing this EVERY DAY, I am honestly tired of it. I find myself spending more and more time at home and when I am out, engaging less and less with the locals. If that continues, I will not stay... and I have no idea how to change it other than just stop trying and that's not my style.

You can put your arms back where they were now. Sorry.

When I attempt to communicate in Vietnamese with someone I've known for a while, he or she will make an effort to understand or at least say, "Khong hieu (I don't understand)" and one or both of us will pull out a smartphone and head for Google Translate. The look still creeps in occasionally while they try to figure out what I am saying.

Think about the last time someone whose ability to speak American or Canadian (according to the Brits I know, those who lives across a body of water don’t speak English) bordered on non-existent. Did you try to understand what they were trying to say or did you make a face and refuse to communicate? Chances are you tried to understand. Yes, there are those who will tell him/her to “learn to speak ‘Merican ‘cause this is ‘Merica!” because they didn’t understand (or maybe didn't care) that that’s what the person was trying to do... but few of them will read this far because there are no pretty pictures.

Vietnamese is a tonal language, so changing pronunciation changes meaning. If you say “Ba” with a downward inflection, it means grandmother or older person; if you say it with an even inflection, it means 3. “Tam” with an upward inflection (as we English-speakers would use when asking a question) means shower as in taking one; with an even inflection it means toothpick. If you are in a restaurant and ask for a shower, you might get a toothpick. Your chances increase if you make a gesture like you are picking your teeth. As a side note, public picking of both teeth and nose are socially acceptable here, though I have yet to adopt the latter.

In any of the flavors of English, mispronouncing a word rarely changes the meaning and has fewer consequences than in Vietnamese. A native-speaker who tries can usually discern the intended meaning. For example, “He read the book” could be spoken with ‘read’ pronounced as either ‘red’ or ‘reed’. Say it out loud both ways and you’ll see (hear) that the meaning does not change greatly. Another example is the word “close”… you can close the door or have a close call. If you switch them, the sentence is still one most every native-speaker can easily figure out.

In English, if a sentence ends in an upward inflection, it’s generally thought to be a question. In Vietnamese, a yes-no question begins with “yes” and ends with “no”; for example, “You, yes, are hungry, no.” Many times the “yes” is omitted, though. Other questions are discerned, I’m pretty sure, by context. If you end a question in Vietnamese with an upward inflection instead of adding “no” at the end, you’ve changed the meaning of the last word and made a statement that may be senseless and is almost definitely different than intended.

I think I know the reason for the disconnect here. What I do not know is how to fix it. The following is only my theory, though a number of native-speakers who are fluent in English told me it has merit: In my experience, the Vietnamese people (there's painting with a BROAD brush) are seemingly unable to take a spoken sentence word by word and figure out what the intended meaning is. That might be because the pronunciations sound like complete gibberish ("Telephone couch is eggplant right beef") and it might be how their neurons are connected. It doesn’t really matter, the result is the same. I’m sure that part of the challenge is, as I wrote almost a year ago, when they see a Westerner, they expect English or German or French or anything EXCEPT Vietnamese to come out of the cake hole. Then, when they hear the sounds, they try to figure out what those sounds mean in English—and of course, it’s NOT ENGLISH so I'm toast. Or, in the case of my previous example, sweet tea.

When writing the Vietnamese language, there are marks put over and/or under some of the letters. The marks tell the pronunciation and therefore, the meaning of the word. For example, according to Google Translate, “What do you want to eat?” is written “Bạn muốn ăn gì” If you write “Ban muon an gi” without the marks, it translates to “What do you want to hide?”. “How are you today?” is “Hôm nay bạn thế nào.” Take away the marks and “Hom nay ban the nao” translates to “Today you the nao.” Native speakers can apparently figure out the meaning without the marks because most I know do not use them when writing a text message. Google translate cannot. It took me over a month to convince a friend who speaks minimal English that without the marks the messages were translating into gibberish. Her messages now have the marks on the letters and are usually translatable.

As I said up top, it may be time for and I'm preparing for a change of venue, scenery, and language. A few of the long-term (9+ years here) ex-pats with whom I’ve discussed this say that I should give it a year before throwing in the towel (younger readers, think “tap out”). Each of them says he tried to learn the language enough to communicate in daily encounters and gave up within a year. Each is also married to a Vietnamese who is relatively fluent in English—relatively difficult to find in Dà Lạt—and who makes it much easier to function in day-to-day life. I will need a serious chill pill to last another seven months here; do they still make Quaaludes?

The previous paragraph should NOT be interpreted to mean that I am seriously or even casually looking for a wife… though I may be interested in quality pharmaceuticals.

During or soon after my trip back to ‘Merica, I hope to find clarity. Right now, I’m leaning strongly toward an extended adventure from Seattle down Hwys 101 & 1 to San Diego and then through Mexico, Central America, and western South America. No timetable, just go. It might take six months and it might take a few years. I’ve read a LOT about retiring in Central and South America and the only planned stops would be in the places that look like they have potential for my next extended stay. Another option might be to join my Canadian friend who lives in Mui Ne (same guy mentioned above) and is an experienced motorcyclist and off-road rider. He is talking about an extended trip to Spain this fall/winter and asked me to think about joining him. It's on the table—at least my Español is understood most of the time.

At this point, I’m thinking my next move is to stay on the road most of the time, traveling by motorcycle until I am unable to continue. By then, I might have a place to land. If not, I'll keep traveling. I don’t think anyone would pick up a grizzled old hitchhiker, though most places have buses.

If you have an idea or any thoughts on any of the above, I'd love to hear them.


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